From Walkabout, Storm Boy, Crocodile Dundee and Rabbit Proof Fence, to Australia, The Proposition and Charlie’s Country, the work of David Gulpilil forms a throughline in modern Australian cinema.
Knowing that his career has touched Australians far and wide and across generations, distributor ABCG Films wanted to ensure documentary My Name Is Gulpilil was accessible and could reach audiences across the country.
Directed by Molly Reynolds, who also produced with Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr and Gulpilil, the film sees the legendary Indigenous actor, who has terminal lung cancer, tell his story in his own words – there are no talking heads from anyone else.
The film was originally intended to exist as a posthumous tribute, though Gulpilil has defied the odds. Indeed, despite his illness, he was even able to be there in person for the film’s premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival screening at Adelaide Festival in March.
ABCG Film, led by Alicia Brescianini and Cathy Gallagher, has a long history of working with de Heer’s Vertigo Productions, spanning back to 1998, and with that, Gulpilil.
As such, it’s been personal for the publicity pros to distribute the film, only the second they have released theatrically under their banner – the first being Reynold’s Another Country, which also featured the actor.
The hook of the campaign has centred around the fact Gulpilil has been a staple of screens for 50 years. He is the only actor to star across the two highest grossing Australian films of all time, Crocodile Dundee and Australia.
“He’s been in so many films, but people who know him from Storm Boy don’t necessarily know that he’s the same guy in Australia, because of the 40 years in between,” Gallagher tells IF.
“People who studied him in Rabbit Proof Fence, because it was on the curriculum, don’t necessarily know he was the funny guy in Crocodile Dundee.
“It’s about connecting people with who they know, who they were impressed by or who stood out to them and them making them realise – he’s all of those people.
“In a way, he charts the history of Australian cinema. He was there for the ’70s New Wave, he was there for the 10BA films. He was there in outback noir, and he has worked with the rising stars of Indigenous cinema.
“That has been a real foundation point for us. But then, once we’ve got them in, we’re revealing this extraordinary cultural journey. That is what’s so exciting.”
Brescianini and Gallagher crafted a distribution strategy thinking about the overall life of the film, from the festival premiere, through theatrical, ancillary and broadcast on the ABC during NAIDOC Week.
As part of this, they successfully applied to Screen Australia for a mentorship/skills development grant to allow a First Nations person to join the team for 12 weeks.
That was awarded to proud Adnyamathanha, Barngarla and Yankunytjatjara woman Charlotte Coulthard-Dare, who runs Radio Adelaide show Nunga Wangga.
The position will see her work not only on My Name is Gulpilil, but across publicity and marketing on the whole slate of projects ABCG Film is attached to – including with the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the South Australian Film Corporation, the Sharing Stories Foundation, and film and TV projects.
Gallagher says: “This is the first mentorship we are aware of, of its kind, that is aimed at the part of the industry where the creative production meets the audience. Until now, development opportunities have been aimed at developing the skills and opportunities for the storytellers – which is essential – but we similarly need more diversity at this end of the industry to ensure those stories have a culturally inclusive and respectful launch into the world.”
My Name is Gulpilil launched theatrically on May 27, and has made more than $360,000 so far, with ABCG taking a multi-pronged approach to get the film out the widest audience possible.
“Our plan was to get the film out to the entire nation at the same time, and make it accessible, so that small screens were able to show it to their community just as much as the bigger screens were,” Brescianini says.
“David has covered the length and breadth of the country with his reputation, and has so many admiring fans everywhere that want to know more and hear from him.”
Unfortunately, Victorian cinemas were closed over the film’s opening weekend, with the duo estimating this suppressed box office by around 40 per cent. However, since reopening cinemas in the state have put their weight behind it, with Carlton’s Cinema Nova currently the no. 1 screen.
Ahead of the opening, Screen Australia support allowed the team to deliver virtual Q&A screenings at more than 20 locations. This included people who know Gulpilil both professionally and personally, such as Jack Thompson, Witiyana Marika (High Ground, Yothu Yindi), Margaret Pomeranz, Damon Gameau (The Tracker) and host Yolngu woman Leila Gurruwiwi (Marngrook Footy Show).
Brescianini and Gallagher have also created a DCP of the event to offer to cinemas, in order to extend the theatrical life of the film.
AACTA had record-breaking audiences at its preview screenings, and other organisations such as Independent Cinemas Australia (ICA) and the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) have also thrown their support behind it.
Gulpilil is currently living in Murray Bridge, South Australia, and ABCG Film partnered with the local Cameo Cinema to screen the film there so that the actor could come and see it and share it with the local community.
“The first time he came, he greeted every person leaving the cinema,” says Gallagher.
“We wanted to ensure that David, who is very frail and whose health changes week-to-week, depending on treatment, had the capacity or opportunity to see the film.”
The campaign has also seen Ngarrindjeri artist Thomas Readett paint a mural of Gulpilil in Adelaide, on the East Terrace wall of Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute.
The mural, which will remain on the building permanently, was created in collaboration with Apparition Media and designed to reflect Gulpilil’s journey, referencing both his Yolŋu culture and Country, as well as his current home of Murray Bridge.
The team have also crafted social media collateral with many of Gulpilil’s co-stars and collaborators.
“We have delivered this campaign with a very small, all women group of like-minded, collaborative freelancers. We have, on top of that, had a support team of First Nations colleagues who we have relied on for guidance and consultation in our decision making, because we’re very sensitive to the fact that we are non-Indigenous Australians handling material that is extraordinarily sensitive for a whole range of reasons,” Gallagher says.
“We’ve ensured we’ve taken a respectful approach to try to deliver a culturally rich campaign that is accessible, inclusive and respectful.”
ABCG Film will also be working with a number of companies, including within the screen industry, to plan screenings of My Name is Gulpilil for staff via reconciliation action plans or diversity and inclusion programs. It is also putting together a study guide.
My Name is Gulpilil is still in cinemas and special NAIDOC Week (July 4-11) screenings are planned for around the country (subject to COVID-19) including in Darwin, Perth, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide as well as Cairns, Bunbury, Margaret River, Chinchilla, Murwillumbah, Karratha, and Euroa.
The film will broadcast on the ABC during NAIDOC Week July 11 8.30pm.